Life on Mars
Why Americans hated the British hit. Plus: The dumbest finale in TV history.
Life on Mars hit U.K. television screens in early 2006. It introduced us to a modern-day Manchester cop named Sam Tyler—who is promptly hit by a car, knocked unconscious, and magically transported back to 1973. The bewildered Sam (now nattily attired in period-appropriate leather blazer and polyester slacks) stumbles into the nearest precinct station only to find a new team of detectives (sideburned, wide-lapelled) expecting his arrival. Sam takes up policing right where he left off, chasing thieves and murderers in the past, all the while desperately searching for some sort of doorway back to the present. "Am I mad? In a coma? Or back in time?" he asks over each episode's opening, laying out the central puzzle for the viewer.
This is the highest of high-concept concepts. And it might just be the cleverest premise in the history of televised drama. Consider that in its first few minutes of airtime, Life on Mars manages to establish a triple-genre mashup: 1) a Law & Order-style police procedural, with each episode presenting a discrete 1973 crime for Sam to solve; 2) a Mad Men-style period piece, reanimating a bygone era's delicious aesthetics and risible workplace dynamics; 3) a Lost-style supernatural serial in which a mystery looms spookily over the program's whole arc, stringing us along with dribbled-out clues and revelations.
The series never quite lived up to the genius of its conception. (It's arguably inferior to all three shows mentioned above.) But the BBC Life on Mars—Season 1 was released on DVD here last summer, with Season 2 following in late fall—offered just enough charm, chuckles, and savory plot twists to buoy viewers along for 16 extremely painless episodes. It became a critical and popular success on the other side of the Atlantic.
Which, coupled with the show's easy-to-grok sci-fi storyline, guaranteed an American remake. The U.S. version of Life on Mars debuted on ABC in fall 2008. By spring 2009, it had been quietly canceled. (It was released on DVD in its entirety in September.) The American show stole its story lines, characters, and can't-miss conceit directly from its predecessor. So why did raves and ratings over there translate to yawns and shrugs over here?
The producers of the American version of The Office reportedly said they set out to make "the exact same series but with 10 percent more hope." It simply wouldn't fly to portray the Dunder Miffliners of Scranton, Pa., as sallow zombies drained of prospects and ambition, whereas the dead-end drones of Wernham Hogg's Slough, England, branch looked right at home on British television. The American producers of Life on Mars clearly had a similar formula in mind, but were I to guess at the exact equation I'd gauge it at: 10 percent more hope, 30 percent more schmaltz, 50 percent more glamour, and 700 percent better production values.
The gaudy re-creation of 1973 New York City—filmed on location with a full complement of bell-bottomed extras, shit-brown Oldsmobile sedans, and even a cameo appearance by the Twin Towers—puts the 1973 Manchester of the original series to budgetary shame. Likewise, the American casting is all marquee quality. Harvey Keitel and Gretchen Mol have starred in Hollywood films and surely never imagined in those headier days that they'd end up supporting players on a TV show.
Nabbing Keitel in particular must have seemed like a coup. But his presence weakens the show. The septuagenarian lacks the beefy virility that British actor Philip Glenister brought to the role of Sam's boss, chief detective Gene Hunt, in the BBC show. Glenister's Hunt is everything we treasure in a '70s television cop: He's crude, sexist, mildly racist in a nonmalicious way, built like a bull, and forever itching to knock heads. Much of Hunt's dialogue (e.g., "You great, soft, sissy, girly, nancy, French, bender, Man United-supporting poof!"—which, for those who don't speak 1970s Cro-Magnon Brit, is basically a list of synonyms for homosexual) offers guilty laughs in the Archie Bunker mold, with a wincing Sam functioning as a sort of Meathead from the future.
Mol, who plays Sam's U.S. love interest, is markedly blonder, thinner, and hotter than her BBC counterpart, yet has half the warmth and sex appeal. (Mol just seems to involuntarily exude off-putting brittleness at all times. I call it "Bridget Moynihan syndrome.") Meanwhile, Sam's U.S. upgrade—much like the one given to the Tim/Jim character on The Office—has him inhabiting an actor twice as handsome and five inches taller.
Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.
Still of Jason O'Mara in Life on Mars © 2008 ABC.